Monday, January 19, 2015

Review of 'Whiplash'

This is one of those films about triumph over adversity through persistence and determination. A young man goes to a top music school and wants to become one of the best Jazz drummers. An instructor at the school, in the manner celebrated in a thousand drill-sergeant movies, treats all of the young students very harshly to toughen them up and provide them with paradoxical motivation.

In the formulaic versions of this story some students fall by the wayside but our hero only becomes more determined, until at last he (or occasionally she) proves themselves, at which point the apparently harsh drill-sergeant reveals his heart of gold.

‘Whiplash’ pushes the scenario to and then beyond the limits. The instructor is not just harsh; he is a sadist, who heaps personal humiliation on the students. He sets them against each other, plays with their emotions, and sets impossible standards that have everything to do with power and nothing to do with the imparting of technical skill or theoretical knowledge. 

And our hero does become more determined, to an extent which is frankly pathological. Not only does he practice until his hands bleed, but he is involved in a near-fatal car crash and then crawls from the wreckage to make his way onto a stage for a chance to play ‘his’ part in a performance. He is a damaged, unpleasant monomaniac, who treats with derision everyone who is not also a monomaniac. He appears to have no human feeling except ambition to succeed as a drummer. He is nasty to his girlfriend (of brief duration), his kind and loving father, and everyone else he runs into.

This is the personality that the harsh instructor sets out to create, though he does not identify or empathise with our hero; he just carries on tormenting him. The instructor gets to make the occasional speech justifying this as demanding excellence, and this view is not really challenged in or by the film.

There is a beautifully filmed final set-piece in which the young hero, and therefore the cruel instructor’s philosophy, is vindicated by a superior performance. This performance is delivered in the context of an especially cruel and destructive (and frankly implausible) trap set for the hero; but he triumphs, and thereby finally earns the respect of the cruel instructor, as we always knew he would. This does demonstrate that the philosophy is actually sound – it got the desired result. This is a hymn to elitism that at least acknowledges, if only tacitly, the cost. For everyone who makes it to the promised land of excellence there are a hundred, or a thousand, people who might have been quite good players, and had some fun making music, who have been fatally discouraged because they could never be excellent.

I note in passing that none of the music students ever appear to enjoy music or have any fun playing; I know that 'Fame' was made-up and light entertainment, but there were moments when the students at the Fame Academy gave some indication that they were enjoying themselves. Not this lot. It reminded me of Andre Agassi's comment that he hated playing tennis. 

This is a brilliantly made, powerful film, with some amazing photography and exploration of human relationships, but it is also horrible - a sort of 'Triumph of the Will' for Jazz.

Review of 'Birdman'

A successful Hollywood actor in late middle age, best known for his performance in a super-hero franchise (the Birdman of the title) wants to put on a serious literary play on Broadway, doing the adaption and the directing and appearing as one of the main characters. He’s a bit troubled (drug addict teenage daughter, ongoing relationship with ex-wife, relationship with younger woman member of the cast), and he may be actually delusional – the film shows him as having super-powers, but only when no-one else is around, so he may be imagining this. He also hears a voice in his head, which turns out to come from the Birdman character. Oh, and he really doesn’t understand social media, which is presented as a near-disability.

Making the play turns out to be difficult – theatre people (especially an important reviewer) sneer at him, he doesn’t understand social media, the bankable actor they get to play the other male lead is not only arrogant but a bit of a fuck-up, and there are some amusing slapstick scenes as well as some dark ones with hints of suicide.

The delusions and the voices, play games with what we thing is real in the story. Most of the time this is pretty obvious (we know he can’t really fly or move objects with his thoughts), though sometimes it isn’t. What really distinguishes this film, though, is the cinematography – the use of colour, and the almost total absence of jump cuts. I am only certain about one; apart from that it’s all pans and zooms. There really aren’t any cuts, which give the film a really eerie quality.

It also made me think about ‘Maps to the Stars’. Actors, and film people, really do exist in a series of tightly interlocking personal networks. Their reputation, and their personal contacts, are their capital – so who snubs and blanks who really is of fundamental financial significance to them. Of course, this is the human social world that we all live in, and it’s these pecking orders that make us both happy and miserable. But for ‘arts’ people it is literally their livelihood and their material well-being as well as their social relations that are at stake, which is why they seem to have so much capacity for unhappiness despite their material wealth. Just saying…

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Review of 'Short Term 12'

Another thoughtful, quiet film - this one is about abused kids and the people who help them put themselves back together. Lots of character stuff, nicely observed. Very little violence or threat, and no focus on the abusers; the only one who is depicted appears very briefly, and while he is asleep - vulnerable and innocent.

This isn't a world I have any real insight into, but this struck me as a decent well-made film, dealing with hard stuff in a way that wasn't exploitative or melodramatic.

Review of 'The Lunchbox'

Disappointingly not a film about the bulge in someone's trousers...no, actually a really nice Indian film, somewhat slow and under-stated, but nice and enjoyable for all that. It's a sort of romcom, but almost a sad, wistful one - the poster does it no justice.

An ageing account gets mis-delivered a tiffin tin. The tin has been sent by a much younger, unhappily-married woman who meant it to go to her uncaring husband. It's a really nice observed film about character, relationships (seen and unseen), chance, loss...if it had been Hollywood or even Bollywood it would have had an implausible big finish happy ending. Instead...well, watch it yourself, it's worth it.

Monday, January 12, 2015

Review of 'Philomena'

I watched this last night – the first film I've watched on an actual, physical-form DVD in ages. It was really good, with more dimensions than I would have guessed from the trailer. It’s not just a follow-up to all those nasty-nun lost children films like ‘The Magdalene Sisters’, though it is that as well. 

It’s also a comment on our media, and on how toxic and corroded the people who work in it have become. Steve Coogan, who I don’t like all that much as a comedian, is absolutely brilliant in this, and manages to convey something of the contempt that he and his class feel for working people and their ‘naff’ tastes, while at the same time also showing some recognition that this isn't right or even human.


Judy Dench is of course also wonderful, and her character manages to pose some interesting questions about atheism; I am myself both an atheist and a secularist, but the dynamic between Martin Sixsmith and Philomena does make me aware that there is a ‘taste’ element to the way in which ‘educated’ people look down on the beliefs of religious people. He is angrier with the nuns, on her behalf, than she herself is angry with them. Mind you, I felt just as angry as he did.

Monday, January 05, 2015

Review of 'Ida'

The other intelligent, sensitive, thoughtful film in which I dozed off - this time at a crucial moment. This film both looks and sounds as if it were made in the 1950s - even the screen size is deliberately retro, as is the sound production. It depicts a dreary, depressing Poland which has not come to terms with its wartime past. The main character is a young novitiate in a nunnery, who - just before she takes her vows - is introduced to an aunt that she hadn't previously known about. She soon learns that she is Jewish, her aunt a former Communist partisan who became a judge and has now fallen from favour. The aunt takes her on a trip to find out what became of her family, and they discover that the peasants who were hiding them from the Nazis had murdered them.

The film recalled my own trips to Poland - for work, not a concentration-camp pilgrimage - in which I nevertheless kept bumping into the ghosts of the Jewish past of Warsaw. The city had been one-third Jewish, and the "disappearance" of the Jews must have left an enormous hole in its social, cultural and culinary life; but my attempts to discuss this with a Polish colleague were really not welcome. It was also striking the way in which most Poles looked like each other, and how every so often I would see a face that was obviously Jewish.

The novitiate experiences life outside the nunnery, smokes, drinks, has sex with a jazz musician, and then consciously decides to replace her wimple and shows every sign of heading back to the nunnery as the film closes. Yet the cloistered life is not at all presented as ideal. A really complex, nuanced film - I'm really sorry about the bit I missed.

Review of 'The Theory of Everything'

One of two intelligent, thoughtful, sensitive films in which I have fallen into a deep sleep. I am, of course, ashamed to admit this, but confession is good for the soul or something like that.

This is mainly about Hawking's relationships - with his wife, and then with his carer - and how they fit with what we must call his 'disability', which seems much too mild a word. There is not much about his career, or his science, apart from a few set pieces - defending his PhD thesis, presenting his ideas for the first time at a conference, a TV appearance.

None the worse for that, and it is pretty explicit about his atheism and his rejection of the knighthood, though not some other gong that he did accept - the film implies to please his wife.

The bit I missed was the early, 'glittering prizes' scenes of Cambridge life; I don't think they were that important, though perhaps someone else will tell me otherwise.

Saturday, January 03, 2015

Review of 'Jeff, who lives at home'

A quiet, small film about two brothers, each failures in their own way, coming to terms with the destiny that seems to have passed them by. I think it's supposed to be a 'screwball' comedy with lots of unlikely events conspiring to force the brothers together in difficult situations, but it mainly strikes me as sad. Susan Sarandon is good as the mother and owner of the home where one brother lives in the basement; she, and the two sons, have not got over the death of their father, and life is passing her by too.

Monday, December 29, 2014

Review of 'Where the Heart is'

This is what Natalie Portman was doing 14 years ago, though her career survived.

It's the cinematic equivalent of eating toffee popcorn sprinkled with hundreds and thousands. It's unbearably sweet, and dull. All the poor white people are beautiful and thin. All the alcoholics (of which there are several in the film) have good complexions and teeth. There are occasional funny lines, and lots of product placement. I can't guess how much Wal-Mart must have paid to be featured so centrally and sympathetically. Also Kodak, for all the good it did the company; and I would say that the lingering shots of La Portman's bum are to show off the red tag on her jeans.

Also too long - two hours.

Review of "Safety Not Guaranteed"

Cute, quirky, independent film - almost self-consciously independent, since it's set in and around Seattle and the central character girl is a sort of scrubbed-up skater type.

The self-made geek who is the other central character is supposed to be making his own time machine, but this is (thankfully) not a time-travel film. It's about eccentricity, self-delusion, and small towns.

Some material about internships, magazine journalism, a hint towards conspiracy films, some coming-of-age and 'revisiting your ex' stuff, but a fun film. And short too, which was a pleasure. So many bad films are also too long; presumably editing them down would cost too much.

This won't change the world but it's a bearable way to spend 83 minutes.

Review of 'Gone Girl'

Funny how there is so much less to write about with a good film than a bad one. This is a closely plotted psychological thriller with a possible murder and a missing person. There are two major plot twists, neither of which I saw coming, so good value there. It’s plot driven, but the characters are good and there are lots of nice details, like the media satire and the celebrity murder lawyer. I’ve always liked Rosamund Pike, so that’s another plus. I can’t see how I can say much else without this being a spoiler; this is good and worth watching.

OK, that said, now a SPOILER ALERT; don’t read further if you want to see this and enjoy it properly.

There is one plot/character hole that bothers me. It seems that Amy plans to complete her frame-up of her husband by killing herself. We ‘see’ her minds-eye view of the body drifting in the Mississippi, and she has a note on her meticulous planning calendar that says ‘Kill Self’. But this does seem rather out of character for her. She is a self-centred psychopathic bitch, and she has everything else worked out. So does she have a scenario where she lives on after her husband is executed for her murder? If so, I didn’t catch it. When she goes into hiding she takes a wodge of cash, but it’s not that much. But when she is forced to change her plan because she is robbed, she doesn’t bring forward the self-topping but instead looks up old flame/victim Collings. Also, the note on the calendar to kill herself doesn't appear to be the last item.


Maybe this is much clearer in the book. Can anyone who has read it, or watched the film more carefully, please explain?

Review of 'The Hobbit': Zionism in Middle Earth

“I understand how. I do not understand why.” That’s what Winston Smith says in 1984, and that’s pretty much how I feel about this film. Why expend so much effort and technical expertise to turn a little kids’ book into a mega-epic that bores as much as it is impresses?

There are some good things about it – the scenery, the sets, and sometimes the music. The actors try to do their best with it – the occasional glance that suggest they know this is codswallop but they and we are in it together. The scenes with Gollum in it are well done – the combination of pathos and malice in the character really is remarkable.

But the dialogue is mainly awful. The narrative is padded so as to allow nine hours of epic out of a quite small book, and things have been crowbarred in so as to suggest that Bilbo’s journey is, like the Lord of the Rings trilogy, part of some titanic struggle against evil – lots of portentous dialogue between Gandalf and various elves, and some scenes with a very Osama-like Saruman obviously being deceitful.

The action scenes, which make up so much of the film, are terrible and stupid. Repeatedly the band of dwarves get stuck in an unwinnable battle, in which they fight bravely but from which they are rescued by an outside agency – Gandalf turns up, or elves on horseback, or rescue eagles. Despite being involved in lots of fighting against overwhelming odds no dwarf is every killed or even injured; and the set-pieces in which they fall thousands of feet  down caverns on collapsing wooden structures, and then pick themselves up and rush into another fight, are not even laughable.

Perhaps there is scope for a “film-goers’ cut”, with all the scenery, sets and arch glances, but none of the dialogue or plot. It could be about 20 minutes long. I’d be up for that.

One more thought, on the representation of race and class. In Lord of the Rings the orcs spoke with cockney accents; here they speak orcish, with sub-titles. I know Tolkien actually made up languages for everyone, but are the orcs speaking his orcish? It does sound rather Slavic. Here it’s only the trolls who speak with working-class British accents, with extra comedy provided by the fact that they are talking about the finer points of cooking – it’s obviously funny when working-class people do that, as is proved by ‘Come Dine with Me’.

But are the Dwarves Jews? Of course they are – don’t take my word for it, Tolkien said so.

Leaving aside the reputation for being fearsome fighters for a moment, they live underground, they are good with making things, they love and hoard gold, and – as Bilbo explains – they are a people without a home, living in permanent exile since they were driven out of their ancestral land. In fact, it is his recognition of this, and his wish to help the dwarves recover their homeland, which persuades Bilbo to go on with his quest, making him a sort of Middle Earth Christian Zionist. It’s a good thing that the dwarves’ Zion is only occupied by a dragon rather than say Goblins, isn’t it? Otherwise just think how many bloody sequels there would have to be.

So the answer to the 'why' question might be that this film was made to serve Zionist interests. Or to expose them. Whatever, really.

Friday, December 26, 2014

Review of 'The Interview'

Well, we had to watch this, even though we didn’t think it would be much good. Our expectations were not disappointed; it really isn’t much good. I laughed at this ‘comedy’ maybe two or three times. Although it has an ostensibly political theme, the laughs are supposed to come from the usual gross-out subjects – farts, vomiting, things being shoved up arses…

For once, it’s possible to say that this film wasn’t released, it escaped. Those of a conspiratorial bent might be tempted to consider whether Sony manufactured the controversy to avoid releasing such an awful film, or even to ensure that some people would watch ‘in defence of free speech’. If it had been released in the normal way it would certainly have bombed.

It doesn’t really deserve a detailed review. The talk show host and his producer go to North Korea intending to follow through on the CIA’s request to assassinate Kim Jong-Un; then the host finds that Kim isn’t so bad after all and doesn’t want to kill him, then he finds out that he is, after all, really bad and does want to kill him. Then they decide not to kill him but to ask him difficult questions on air, rather than the prepared ones, so as to humiliate him before his people. But he ends up getting killed anyway, and we see his body burning as the plucky duo shoot his helicopter down from a stolen tank.

Once again, this film has lots of gay themes. Early on we see Eminem come out as gay on air. Kim Jong-Un is worried that his liking for margheritas and Katy Perry might be taken as proof that he is gay. The producer and talk show host are not in a gay relationship, but they are very affectionate buddies.  The producer has to insert what is in effect a very large butt plug into his anus to hide a second delivery of ricin poison from the North Koreans. I suspect that sympathetic depictions of gayness are now an important signifier of ‘civilised values’ – by including some nice stuff about gay people this film proves that it is not merely patriotic warmongering trash like ‘Red Dawn’.